Today (June 26) marks National Canoe Day so what better way to celebrate than a post on PoW-made canoes!
In May 1943, the Canadian government approved the use of prisoner of war labour to help boost the struggling lumber and agricultural industries. From 1943 to 1946, thousands of German PoWs, Enemy Merchant Seamen (EMS), and civilian internees were employed in almost 300 labour projects and farm hostels across the country. The opportunity to work came with increased freedom as remote bush camps had no barbed wire fences or guard towers to contain PoWs. Many of these PoWs turned to their natural surroundings for recreation and hiking, swimming, and boating soon became some of the more popular ways to spend free time.
The camp in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park, known today as the Whitewater PoW camp, opened in October 1943 with the arrival of 440 PoWs from Camp 132 (Medicine Hat). Located on the shore of Whitewater Lake, the PoWs spent their winter working, hiking around the camp, skating on the frozen lake, or reading, but when the lake thawed in the spring, enterprising PoWs turned their attention to building canoes. Apparently the idea for building a canoe came from a Canadian magazine circulating through camp that featured a birch-bark canoe on the cover.
Lacking the skills to build such an intricate craft, the PoWs instead turned to the large spruce trees scattered around the camp. Although the Park warden had told them to save the spruce trees, some were not spared the axe. With these huge logs, groups of PoWs started carving out dugout canoes. Measuring between twelve and sixteen feet in length, the PoWs built one and two-man versions, launching them in the creek that ran along the camp’s southern boundary. The guards and camp commandant permitted PoWs to paddle on Whitewater Lake so long as they stayed away from the shoreline and returned before roll call. Eventually a small fleet of these canoes lined the creek shoreline but not ever PoW took up canoeing for a hobby. One former PoW recalled the canoes were not particularly stable and after falling in the water a number of times, he gave his away to one of his comrades.
Riding Mountain was not the only camp to have canoes. With logging camps scattered across Northern, Ontario, and many situated on lakes or rivers, dugout canoes and more advanced boats appeared throughout the region. But relatively unfamiliar with canoeing and boating on open lakes, a few PoWs drowned and orders from Ottawa restricted canoeing at all camps. At Riding Mountain, the commandant restricted access to those only under the direct supervision of a guard but was eventually prohibited.
When the PoWs left these camps, their canoes remained. Some of them were taken by locals for their own use or as water troughs but most sat where they had been left. Storms and rising water levels carried many away while nature claimed those left behind.
Some of the canoes made at Riding Mountain were still floating in the creek thirty years after the last PoWs left the camp. Two were pulled from the creek and taken to the Fort Dauphin Museum for preservation where they remain to this day. But if you look closely along the creek today, you can still find the remains of one canoe near the creek and others scattered in the reeds. However, every year I revisit the site, they get harder and harder to find.
Undoubtedly the most unusual find this summer was a PoW-made fishing rod. While I have come across the odd mention of PoWs fishing in labour projects in Manitoba and Ontario, this is the first time I’ve encountered material evidence of this.
Made from a broom handle and what appears to be can lids, the fishing rod is simple but functional. The seller advised that it came from a guard at Fort Henry though to me it appears like something that came from the many lumber camps in Northern Ontario. Often located alongside lakes or rivers, bush camps offered PoWs considerable freedoms and a number of PoWs tried their hand at fishing. While the ability to fish was much more uncommon for those in an internment camp, it was not unheard of. Camp 42 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, was situated on a river and one report noted that there were a number of “ardent fisherman” and in May 1945, the camp held a series of angling competitions.
At Camp 23 in Monteith, Ontario, an intelligence report included a section aptly titled “A Fish Story:”
“A short time ago the German medical doctors, BK-788 Guenther Kalle, 43341 Heinz Machetanz and 000129 Hans Modrow, were taken for a parole walk by the Camp [Intelligence Officer]. Carrying fishing rods, the party started for a favorite spot on the Driftwood River, which flows past the camp. Crossing a bridge over a small stream about a half mile from camp, Dr. Machetanz saw a fish lying on the sandy bottom of the clear stream. Baiting a hook with red meat, he dangled the bait before the fish’s mouth, without result. The fish wouldn’t even move. The fisherman then fastened a triple hook to his line, and manipulating it gently under the fish’s mouth, heaved, and up came the fish, securely hooked. The fish turned out to be a sucker; but the fun of catching it in this odd manner was at least partial compensation for the failure to catch any more that day. They have had better luck since, as Dr. Machetanz caught a pickerel and Dr. Kalle got two on Saturday afternoon, 12 Aug.”
While some of the history of this piece may be lost, it still provides an interesting look into PoW handicrafts and recreation.
Continuing my last post’s brief discussion of sports in PoW camps in Canada, today’s post showcases a few pieces in my collection relating to the sporting achievements of one German officer in Camp 30.
Camp 30, located in Bowmanville, Ontario, was among the many camps to have organized sporting events. The camp was built around a former boys’ school and housed German officers and their orderlies from 1941 until its closure in 1945. Among the PoWs who spent some years here was Leutnant Hilmar Schmidt.
Leut. Hilmar Schmidt was a navigator and bomb-aimer in the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force. Fortunately for me, Schmidt kept a diary of his time in the Luftwaffe and a number of excerpts were published in Kenneth Wakefield’s The First Pathfinders. While they provide no information regarding his later internment, the diary entries provide a good sense of lives of Germans flying sorties over Britain.
On the night of June 14, 1941, Schmidt’s military career came to an end. As he described in a later interview,
Schmidt, along with pilot Ofw. Paul Wiersbitzki and crewmen Fw. Herbert Schick and Fw. Kurt Braun, were taken prisoner. Following his interrogation and a brief time as a PoW in Britain, Schmidt eventually found himself in Canada by the 1942.
In April 1942, Schmidt arrived at Bowmanville where he remained for at least the next year. As the following documents suggest, he excelled at the sporting events, participating in a number of activities.
Traditionally, “gaue” refers to the administrative regions of Germany but in this case, I believe it may refer to divisions or areas within the camp. The team name appears to be “Gau Mitte” which would translate to the middle or centre area/region. Team members include Hauptman Bräuer, Hauptman Ganzert, Hauptman Code, Oberleutnant Einicke, Oberleutnant von Krause, Oberleutnant Marx, Ft.z.S. Happel, Leutnant Schmidt, Leutnant Wüllenweber, Stabsgefreiter Nowsky, and San. Soldat Mochalski.
For those who may not have noticed, the triangular cut-out at the top of each certificate is not original. The cutout area once featured the German Eagle clutching a Swastika, the symbol of Nazi Germany. I found it quite interesting that presumably Schmidt or a family member was willing to erase this element of camp life but valued the rest of these documents enough to preserve them.
In April 1945, Schmidt was transferred to Camp 44 at Grand Ligne, Quebec. He was here for only a year before he was again transferred in April 1946, this time to Camp 40 at Farnham, Quebec before being sent to Great Britain.
1. Kenneth Wakefield, The First Pathfinders: The Operational History of Kampfgruppe 100, 1939-1941 (London: William Kimber & Co. Limited, 1981), 32.
2. Ibid, 173.
Life behind barbed wire was generally monotonous and strictly regulated and for those spending upwards of five years in internment camps were liable to suffer significant mental strain. In an attempt to both prevent this and to break-up their daily routine, among the many activities organized by PoWs were sporting events. A variety of teams and competitions were organized inside the camps, including football (soccer) and hockey. Equipment was often provided by the War Prisoners’ Aid of the YMCA.
Some camps, particularly those that held officers, had access to facilities that let them take part in activities including tennis and swimming. This, however, didn’t prevent PoWs from improvising; faced without any suitable structure for sporting events, PoWs at Medicine Hat built their own stadium. However, playing sports like soccer and volleyball within a barbed-wire enclosure brought about another issue – in one camp, barbed wire ruined an average of eight soccer balls and four volleyballs every month.1
1. C.M.V. Madsen & R.J. Henderson, German Prisoners of War in Canada and their Artifacts, 1940-1948 (Regina, SK, 1993.), 42.